Book review: Neoliberal Urban Governance: Spaces, Culture and Discourses in Buenos Aires and Chicago

reviewed by Maedhbh Nic Lochlainn

18 Aug 2023, 10:10 a.m.

Neoliberal Urban Governance book cover

Carolina Sternberg, Neoliberal Urban Governance: Spaces, Culture and Discourses in Buenos Aires and Chicago, Cham: Palgrave Macmillan, 2023; 208 pp.: ISBN: 978-3-031-21718-0, £39.99 (pbk), ISBN: 978-3-031-21717-3, £109.99 (hbk)


Neoliberal urban governance has been a mainstay of critical urban research for at least 30 years, and researchers have sought to capture and interrogate the intersection between neoliberalisation processes and the landscapes of urban development. This critical effort has entailed long-term attention both to the structures that underpin ‘actually existing neoliberalism’ in contemporary cities (Brenner and Theodore, 2002) and to the agency of states, cities, organisations and individuals in perpetuating and/or resisting neoliberal urbanism (e.g. Crossan et al., 2016; Purcell, 2003). Notably, cities have been understood as key sites for understanding both the urbanisation of neoliberalism and the neoliberalisation of urban space and experiences (Rossi, 2017), and this understanding has most recently been approached through the different lenses of world/global city research (Sigler, 2016), comparative urbanism (Robinson, 2016, 2023) and planetary urbanisation (Brenner, 2018). In this context, Neoliberal Urban Governance is an engaging and timely intervention that presents findings on ‘actually existing’ neoliberal urbanism in and between two cities, one in the Global North (Chicago) and one in the Global South (Buenos Aires).

The book is usefully positioned across and between these two cities. This position is carefully contextualised in the first chapter through an explanation of the key perspectives and terms that the book draws from, which are: cultural economy; neoliberal urban governance; gentrification-led redevelopment; and the combination of a post-political turn and policy mobility. The book makes a convincing argument for adopting a comparative urban approach, in which situated case study research across Global North and Global South contexts can illuminate the ways in which ‘neoliberal urban governances’ operate ‘as forceful assemblages of institutions when they advance their redevelopment projects’ (p. 5), which seek to shape and are shaped by urban spaces, cultures and discourses. Here, a comparative approach is introduced as a way of understanding ‘that governances that share a common neoliberal framework operate distinctively in particular locations: they are significantly different entities as locally grounded formations’; ‘each formation – locally constituted and humanly crafted – uses distinctive rhetoric… programs, and policies’ (p. 5). It is this comparative ethos that shapes the book’s engagement with Buenos Aires and Chicago, and their urban governance trajectories in the decade since 2011, the year in which both cities elected new executive authorities.

The book is essentially organised in four parts. A thematic and methodological introduction and a comparative conclusion on ‘actually-existing neoliberal governances’ bookend six empirical chapters, with three chapters per city. The first set of empirical chapters discusses neoliberal urban governance and property-led regeneration in Buenos Aires, layering analytical strands on top of each other. The second chapter gives an overview of the recent trajectory of neoliberal governance in Buenos Aires, and traces the urban agendas of two mayoral administrations – those of Mauricio Macri (2007–2015) and his former vice mayor Horacio Rodríguez Laretta (2015-present), both founding members of the right-wing Propuesta Republicana (PRO). Chapters 3 and 4 respectively trace the ‘Creative Districts’ initiative and the urbanisation of Villa 31, two of the key neoliberal policy initiatives that have reshaped the city over the last decade. Sternberg captures how the physical and discursive transformations that neoliberal urban governance pursues are intertwined, and memorably characterises territorial stigmatisation and the stereotyping of the raced and classed subjects who live in these spaces as ‘the aperture’ through which new and more desirable imagined spaces and subjects are offered (p. 56). Neoliberal urban governance is shown to be adept at selectively tapping into the historical, architectural and cultural legacies of ‘Creative District’ neighbourhoods, and narrating the urbanisation of the old, large and centrally located Villa 31 slum as ‘inclusive urban upgrading’ (p. 76). Despite local resistance, Sternberg charts how these physical and discursive transformations have reconfigured urban spaces towards the interests of affluent tourists and visitors in the case of the ‘Creative Districts’, and reconfigured raced and class urban subjects from the marginalised villeros/as to the valorised vecinos/as in the case of Villa 31.

The second set of empirical chapters focuses on neoliberal urban governance and redevelopment in Chicago, and provides a similar layering of context and cases within the case. In chapter 5, Sternberg shows that Chicago’s ‘actually existing’ neoliberal urban governance has been moulded by a longer-term institutional ecosystem of ‘machine politics’. Sternberg positions rhetoric and associated discourse as a key means of distinguishing between the Mayoral administrations of Rahm Emanuel (two-term mayor, 2011–2019) and Lori Lightfoot (2019–2023), with the former doubling down on global city rhetoric and the latter introducing a depoliticised discursive shift towards ‘inclusive economic growth’. These municipal politics have played out in and contributed to a starkly unequal city, which is both economically and racially segregated. In chapter 6, Sternberg attunes to the cycles of disinvestment and ‘activation’ that have marred Pilsen and Little Village, two central and formerly industrial districts of the city that have been reshaped by gentrification-led redevelopment. Sternberg outlines how, under Emanuel, gentrification-led redevelopment’s frontier has encroached on these deindustrialised, working-class and predominantly Latino/a/x communities, which have suffered ‘the slow violence of structural racism, decades of anti-immigrant rhetoric, environmental harm, and overall social, physical, and economic disinvestment’ (p. 127). Here, the language of land and properties as vacant, blighted and under-utilised is used to justify property-led regeneration, with an ensuing discipling and commodification of urban spaces and subjects. Under Lightfoot, Sternberg suggests, neoliberal urban development has been discursively repackaged – rather than Emanuel’s insistence on Chicago being or becoming a global city, the same principles, priorities and agendas for urban development have been narrated under Lightfoot as ‘building an inclusive and equitable Chicago’, with neoliberal policies ‘wrapped in post-political language’ (p. 165).

The last chapter of the book compares the urban governances of Chicago and Buenos Aires. Here, Sternberg crafts a dialogue across and between the empirical sections, and teases out some of the key similarities and differences between neoliberal urban governance in the two contexts. Tellingly, the positioning of municipal governance within national governance is a critical entry point to this comparison, with the absence (Chicago) and presence (Buenos Aires) of federal funding and public land leading to distinct public–private assemblages in the two cities. Sternberg suggests that gentrification also proceeds differently in the two cities, but this remains more implicit than direct as a point of comparison. More fundamentally, Sternberg highlights discourse’s function as a key component of neoliberal urban governance and transformation in both cities. While the specific discourse that is used to transform urban spaces and identities can vary (e.g. ‘inclusive urban upgrading’ versus ‘building an inclusive and equitable Chicago’), Sternberg argues that discourse itself plays a central role in making property-led development happen and channelling real estate capital towards stigmatised and disinvested neighbourhoods.

Neoliberal Urban Governance: Spaces, Cultures and Discourses offers an engaging account of ‘actually existing neoliberalism’ and its transformations in a Global North and a Global South city. In it, Sternberg narrates how neoliberal urban governance is made possible through locally situated discourses, which render urban spaces and identities as sites for ‘transformation’ through commodification in raced, classed and unequal ways. As with most thought-provoking academic books, there are some tantalising threads that go unpulled – these include a more direct comparison of gentrification in the two cities (and the cases within them), the interconnections between neoliberal and austerity urbanisms which are mentioned in passing, and the implicit but undiscussed relevance of rent gap theory, particularly in the Chicago context. However, these are mostly areas for further exploration, rather than major shortcomings. Overall, the book thinks from and across Global North and Global South contexts in an empirically grounded way and should be a key reference for anyone interested in comparative urbanism, neoliberal urban policies and discourses or doing research on either of the case study cities.



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